ANTI-MANCHESTER UTD WEBSITE GETS CLUB SEEING RED
PETER HAYES REPORTS ON HOW THE ENGLISH FOOTBALL GIANTS MANCHESTER UNITED ARE ONLY THE LATEST FOOTBALL CLUB TO TAKE THE INTERNET SERIOUSLY
An anti-Manchester United Internet site that operates under the deliberately confusing address of (www.mufc.com) has been the subject of the legal manoeuvres from the english Premiership club's lawyers, who claim that the company behind the venture is breaking Manchester United's registered trademarks.
The hobby company - going by the name of "Better Dead Than Red" - make no secret of their dislike for the midlands giant's and even went as far as producing their own range of anti-Manchester United paraphernalia such as car stickers with the words "Sit down if you hate Manchester United" and mouse mats emblazoned with the words "CLICK HERE IF YOU HATE MAN UNITED."
(On examination, these items feature a mock-up of the club's badge with the "red devil" emblem being changed to a pig and the name "Manchester United" changed to "Scumchester United.")
A spokesperson and "leading shareholder" of Better Dead Than Red enterprise, Simon Topliss, shut the site down upon receiving a letter from the club's legal representatives. Topliss - himself an avid fan of local rivals Leeds United - was later quoted as saying:"It's ridiculous. I can't believe that Manchester United have taken action against us. We were having a bit of fun and now the mighty Manchester United have crushed us."
A quote from the letter - sent by the Manchester-based solicitors James Chapman & Co - reads: "It has come to our attention that certain merchandising is being offered for sale on the Internet which bears markings similar to that of the Manchester United club badge... Our client requires that all such material be removed from sale and that the use of the website be discontinued immediately."
When questioned directly about the motives behind this action a spokesperson for James Chapman & Co added that "Manchester United was merely seeking to protect its trademarks. It is nothing personal against this company."
Better Dead Than Red initially withdrew the site, but later re-opened with a completely new format that allows access to the official Manchester United site (www.manutd.com) and also gives its own version of recent events. The facility is now called "Steve Burton's Unofficial Manchester United Football Club Site" and has links (re-direction points) to other unoffical Manchester Uniteds sites.
The site alleges "that Manchester United now claim that the initials MUFC are the copyright of the club... Their logo is also under copyright so I guess there will be several fans sites which have not gained permission from Manchester United Football Club and will have to be closed."
Manchester United revamped its Internet facility in time for season 1998/99 when it signed a sponsorship/partnership deal with the software giants Lotus and the hardware company Sun. Lotus had previously been successfully involved with NBA basketball in the United States.
Among recent innovation was the introduction of its own television station called "MUTV" which broadcasts as part of UK's Sky Television digital packet. Subscribers have to pay an extra 4.99 (UK) pounds sterling to receive the service.
One of the primary aims of the Internet update was to increase the amount of so-called E-commerce - the club presently has over 800 "officially endorsed" products. By reputation, the highest number of items for any football club in the world.
The club itself estimates that it has a worldwide fan base of between "10 to 15 million", of which only "four million" are said to be living in the UK and Ireland.
At the time of the club's last accounts the clubs "Megastore" (based near the Old Trafford ground) and mail order business accounted for 15.6 million pounds sterling of the club's 51.6 million pound per year annual turnover.
The club's powerhouse performance in the merchandising field was brought about by one time marketing manager Edward Freedman, who left the club in 1997. When he took office - in the early nineties - the merchandising rights for the club stood at a mere 1.3 million pounds sterling.
(Presently Freedman works for a company called Brand Power whose clients include the UK pop group the Spice Girls.)
Manchester United has long been at the forefront of actions against individuals that use the Manchester United name without the club's approval. Nevertheless the club has not always been successful in the law courts: One T-shirt seller won his case (on appeal) when he successfully argued that its use of an obscene slogan - printed on the front of the shirt - would prevent anybody from believing it be an official club product!
The biggest outside supplier of "official" UK Internet football sites is Planet Online which is based in Leeds in the North of England. They supply a service on behalf of Newcastle United, Leeds United, Aston Villa, West Ham United, Sheffield Wednesday, Leicester City and Wimbledon of the Premiership. Wolves, QPR, Birmingham City, Portsmouth, Barnsley and Bolton Wanderers of Division One. Plus Manchester City of Division Two.
Over half their clientele have joined during the previous twelve months after a long and arduous recruitment campaign.
Planet Online claims special expertise in the area of E- commerce and Planet's Sports Manager, John O'Connor, says that "of the club's that we had on board a year ago we have seen a 200 to 250 percent increase in revenue, although you are talking about from a very low base... Leeds United were doing around 2,500 pounds (sterling) in E-commerce a year ago, now it is around 7,500 pounds. We also hope to make the service a "value added" (italics) service by collecting valuable customer data."
However he goes on to state that he believes that advertising will be the biggest source of Internet/football income in the years to come.
But beyond commerce, what is the future for football websites? "We (Planet Online) want to make the service more interactive and develop on-line games. We'd also like to do more audio-visual interviews and show goal highlights, but that would fall foul of present television contracts."
Nevertheless all service providers are looking at the potential of UK-based digital television services that could, in theory, supply Internet-like computer data services without the need for even a phoneline.
(C) Gemini News Agency